How Far is the Return of Isabel to Rome The Portrait of a Lady

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     The ending of The Portrait of a Lady has aroused plenty of critical controversies. James himself realized that the ending of the novel would arouse speculation that it is ‘not finished’. He argued that ‘it is complete in itself’. The Jamesian plea is not specious, for life has no completeness as such, and the completeness of art is a relative wholeness. James does not foreclose Isabel Archer’s fate; he keeps the complexity of choices and the channels of action open.

      Why does Isabel return to Rome ? The answers could be many, as the following arguments (some of them overlapping) suggest. In brief, her return could have been prompted by :
(1) her New England sensitivity and Puritanical background combined with a sentimental approach to marriage,
(2) her spiritual pride and moral aggressiveness,
(3) her concern for appearance and form,
(4) her mistaken view of freedom and vision of life,
(5) her sexual and emotional frigidity,
(6) her promise to Pansy and the importance she attaches to the plighted word in her value system,
(7) the death-wish and streak of martyrdom in her.

      We note that Isabel’s return to Rome admits of two parallel approaches. One set of critics sees it as some kind of failure or defeat, while the other set sees it as a classic example of a moral vision earned through suffering. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. The ending is as complex as Isabel’s personality. As Richard Poirier observes, ‘the whole literary effort of the novel is designed to keep the reader from finding any merely psychological explanation wholly satisfactory’. No explanation seems to be completely satisfying. There is a mixture of courage and pride, panic and fear, defiance and defeat in that moment of Isabel’s decision. The totality of her response is as inscrutable as life and the mystery of character.

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